Practitioners 57: Robert Kirkman

It’s back!! Practitioners, our article featuring the people who made the comics industry is updated occasionally between issues of Moon. Practitioners Reloaded present the previous 1 – 53 (Simon BisleyChris Bachalo) for those who want to read more.

Born November 30th 1978 in Richmond, Kentucky, Robert Kirkman would be the only non-founding member of the third largest comic book company in the US and the creator of a black and white Zombie-fest that would be hailed as the ultimate in ‘independent’ comic books. The Walking Dead picked up on the global enthusiasm for Zombie stories and made it accessible in a way that saw it developed into a mainstream TV series.

Kirkman’s sense of identifying attention grabbing ideas is complemented by his capacity to carefully and enjoyably develop them, walking the line between enjoyment and engagement for the reader.

Kirkman’s first comic book work was the 2000 superhero parody Battle Pope, co-created with artist Tony Moore, and self published under their Funk-o-Tron label. This, perhaps, is the nature of indy publishing. A well presented, deliberately fringe creation never intended to find a place in the mainstream, that engages readers in a way the mainstream can’t and creates a viable alternative. The perfect synthesis between high (and funny) concept and professional execution (something now only too visible in British indy titles such as Lou Scannon, Stiffs and ahem… Moon).

Kirkman Battle Pope 03 - page 03-04

Later, while pitching a new series, Science Dog, Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, were hired to do a Super Patriot (of Savage Dragon fame) mini series for Image Comics. Not content simply on that, Kirkman developed the 2002 Image Series Tech Jacket, which ran for six issues, with E.J. Su. In 2003, Kirkman and Walker created Invincible for Image’s new superhero line. Again, the story lines were acutely mirroring the work being produced on Marvel’s Ultimate line. Invincible, following the adolescent son of a superhero, who develops his own powers and attempts to start his own superhero career. Kirkman’s genius is an extension of Stan Lee’s some 50 years previous. It hinges on the normalisation of the super, bringing it down to the earth without an overly revealing bump.

Kirkman Invincable

Invincible was one of the titles that made the US comic industry a 3 company, rather than a 2 company one. In 2005, Paramount Pictures announced it had bought the rights to produce an Invincible feature film, and hired Kirkman to write the screenplay. Still nowhere to be seen, most likely the success of Walking Dead has put this particular project on the back seat for the time being.

Walking Dead Kirkman

In 2003, Kirkman began his most well-known and mainstream title, The Walking Dead. It represented an unusual change in the already popular gamut of zombie material that has dominated popular culture for the last ten years. Whereas all previous appearances of the Undead had been one-offs (aside from occasional cameos in George A. Romero’s increasingly marginal series of zombie films) this was an ongoing series, with an ongoing cast and an ongoing threat. The expected result of any Zombie film is that all parties will be decimated by the final reel, the relevance of the plot being the journey those characters took in the face of an unending threat, but Kirkman’s series would cause the threat to be unending. There is no indication as to how the series might end as there is no intention for it to, only that, by Kirkman’s own volition, any character is fair game and can be killed at any time. Even the central character, County Sheriff Rick Grimes, has been given a mortality extending only as far as the reader’s interest. It’s ongoing nature has allowed ideas to be developed in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The depiction of a ‘herd’, a force of nature generated by a world populated by Zombies, in which wandering Undead intersect their ongoing paths, the rudimentary stimulus of the physical world causing them to travel in large groups, like a tide being forced through a river. Add this to the effect of a gun shot or explosion to draw the undead from a wide area and the actions of civilians in future Zombie stories will have been changed by this series.

The format also allowed the events taking place to breathe in a way that other Zombie stories couldn’t allow. Whereas convenient environments are found near-fully formed in films such as Dawn of the Dead, with access to food, water, protection, power – in Kirkman’s world, every viable haven is deficient, solutions having to be found in order to make it safe or sustainable. There is interest in this angle and Kirkman’s new format gives this subject room to be investigated. The flaw in the format however, becomes increasingly clear the longer the series runs. Kirkman has applied the rules of the Undead pretty strictly, although augmented. Those being the discovery of a world in which the Undead have taken over, the discovery of the hopelessness of the situation, the loss of society and resources, the loss of family and friends, the discovery of an enclosed haven, the failure of humanity to maintain it, the realisation that humans are the deadliest species. The difficulty with this is that the same plot has effectively been repeated several times, the inevitable breakdown of the walls around the main characters through their own actions becoming obvious and the threat of the Undead increasingly diminished as the characters and societies have to be more established in order to have survived this long. The title has slowly become a doctrine of post apocalyptic politics as the human race gains a grip on a dead world. Whether this was Kirkman’s intention is uncertain but the title remains engaging, even beyond it’s original remit and has always been written by Kirkman.

Kirkman Walking Dead Headless Dead

This, accompanied with a number of other projects in the same period, hired by Marvel Comics to reintroduce it’s ’90s series, Sleepwalker, sadly cancelled before being published and the contents of issue 1 included in Epic Anthology No.1 in 2004. As the Avengers became increasingly ‘Disassembled’, in Marvel’s dismantling and reboot of the central title, Kirkman was given control of Captain America (vol 4), Marvel Knight’s 2099 one-shots event, Jubilee #1–6 and Fantastic Four: Foes #1–6, a two-year run on Ultimate X-Men and the entire Marvel Team-Up vol. 3 and the Irredeemable Ant-Man miniseries.

At Image, Kirkman and artist Jason Howard created the ongoing series The Astounding Wolf-Man, launching it on May 5, 2007, as part of Free Comic Book Day. Kirkman edited the monthly series Brit, based on the character he created for the series of one-shots, illustrated by Moore and Cliff Rathburn. It ran 12 issues.

Kirkman announced in 2007 that he and artist Rob Liefeld would team on a revival of Killraven for Marvel Comics. Kirkman that year also said he and Todd McFarlane would collaborate on Haunt for Image Comics.

In late July 2008, Kirkman was made a partner at Image Comics, thereby ending his freelance association with Marvel. Nonetheless, later in 2009, he and Walker produced the five-issue miniseries The Destroyer vol. 4 for Marvel’s MAX imprint. It’s unsurprising that Kirkman wanted to continue his association with Marvel, given that he named his son Peter Parker Kirkman, after one of Marvel’s most central heroes.

Walking Dead TV

In 2010, in a fanfare to the success of Walking Dead as a comic book series, AMC began it’s production of the still-ongoing Walking Dead TV Series which has become a mainstay of Sunday night viewing and has brought the original story of Rick Grimes, Lori and his son to a new and much wider audience. This has revealed the capacity for even relatively new books and concepts to find their place in wider media in an industry dominated by titles developed in some case, for more than half a century.

A surprising number of artists have failed to remain working alongside Kirkman, Cory Walker being replaced by Ryan Ottley on Invincible and Tony Moore replaced by Charlie Adlard after 6 issues of Walking Dead. While there is an innate tolerance in modern comic books on precise deadlines (mostly driven by Image and Dark Horse’s independent beginnings) this stands out with Kirkman’s almost solitary retention on the Walking Dead TV series senior team, with some extremely noteworthy walk outs (Frank Darabont the most noteworthy perhaps). These things are always subject to more politics than is publicly visible and are no doubt subject to a great many different pressures, however Kirkman is often the last man standing. This durability and sustainability perhaps the reason he has found himself in such a senior position in Image itself. However, this is open to a great deal of rumour and conjecture and is inevitable when someone such as Kirkman has risen alongside such long standing names of comic, film and TV.

Regardless of what the future holds for Robert Kirkman, he is made an indelible mark on the face of modern comics. He has moved the focus away from super hero comics, even challenging longer established characters and titles in wider fields. He has taken his place among comic book legends to run the third largest comic book company in the world, while still maintaining his own titles. Kirkman should be an inspirational figure to those in independent comics below him and an example of what careful and considered ideas, well developed can achieve.

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Practitioners 41: Erik Larsen

If Simon Bisley is the Heavy Metal and Neil Gaiman the careful lyricism, Erik Larsen is the rock and roll of comic books. Bold colours, flash bang visuals, heavy weaponry, implausible chicks, nasty ass comic book violence and a great hero rising through the pile of body parts and big boobs. Creating a middle ground for those becoming disillusioned with the ‘big ones’ homogenised, careful storytelling, Larsen grinds the pulpish, the extreme and the deliberately silly and offensive together in a cathartic throw back to comics pulp heyday in an unapologetic, hedonistic and ultimately downright fun experience. Recognising that a page is an empty space, pregnant with possibilities, the only limitation – the edges of the artist and writers’ imagination.

Even in the boom days of the nineties, the average comic book geek was under the age of 12 or most likely a social pariah. To these people, escapism was characters that did what they wanted, represented ideals they believed in, got the busty girl and were never intimidated by a sky full of Martian space ships. These readers had a well developed silly bone and an understanding of pulp humour. The readership wasn’t frightened of a book that revelled in random events in the name of kitsch entertainment. This escapism saw heroes appear that were bright, bold, unremitting and smart mouthed. Cartoon heroes for Saturday morning television, made untransmittable before 10PM EST. Erik Larsen was the king of this. A master of crazy, bombastic pulp.

Larsen was born in middle America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child growing up in Bellingham, Washington and Albion, California he created several versions of a character named ‘The Dragon’, a batman like character, driving a car copied from Speed Racer’s Mach 5. Producing a fanzine with a friend which featured ‘The Dragon’ the character was developed into a character able to change using a magic word like Captain Marvel.

Taking his first paid work, working on Megaton, co-creating and illustrating a feature called ‘Vanguard’ with publisher Gary Carlson. The Dragon appeared, slightly revised in the second edition. Larsen went on to work on the Sentinels of Justice for AC Comics and DNAgents for Eclipse Comics.

His work at DC included The Outsiders, Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman and Doom Patrol. For Marvel he completed a The Amazing Spider-man fill-in story and 5 issues of the Punisher. Frankly Larsen made it look easy. Wandering from company to company, first working on incredibly diverse titles for DC and ultimately extremely high end titles for Marvel. Aside from a Nova storyline cancelled for Marvel Comics presents, his flight up the ladder at Marvel was unstoppable. Alongside his master work, as writer and artist on Savage Dragon, Larsen has found an occasional home with Marvel, returning to write and illustrate on Fantastic Four, The Defenders, Wolverine and Nova. He briefly returned to DC to write Aquaman.

Just a selection of the alternate Dragons from the incredibly wild Larsen Universe (by Art Adams)

In 1990, Todd McFarlane was leaving the title Amazing Spider-man, a title he had visually revolutionised and Larsen took over the reigns as of 329, having previously pencilled issues 287, 324 and 327. With writer David Michelinie and Larsen, the series experienced increased sales, with stories such as ‘ The Cosmic Spider-man’, ‘The Return of the Sinster Six’ and ‘The Powerless Spider-man’ that deliberately took off the gloves Spider-man had been treated with. Larsen kept pace with the extreme nature of the story lines, Mary Jane never looking sexier, the character numbers and speed and occurrence of events break neck.

It was during ‘The Return of the Sinister Six’ and before ‘The Dragon’ found his place among the comic book elite that Larsen cemented his place as a true Practitioner. During the production of the book his house was destroyed by flood. While trying to deal with this situation he never missed a page, or reduced the quality of his work – instead accepting an offer by Marvel to reduce the page numbers for two months and fill with back stories. Larsen’s enthusiasm and strength of character bled through here as the rendering of the characters and storylines never missed a beat. Doc Oc swung menacingly into view and epic conflict between multiple characters played out across page after page. Had it not been mentioned in the collected graphic novel, no one would have ever have guessed what was taken place. Not only that, but the faith and help offered by Marvel, a large corporate company, was willing to move mountains to see Larsen complete the project – such was his popularity at the time. His influence on one of the most popular books in comics history, exceptional even in a field of high selling books, places him retrospectively among the greats. But the best was still yet to come. A bawdy, violent, crazy and personally driven comic, seeing his childhood creation fall into the hands of millions of readers around the world. Image had been born under McFarlane and Larsen was going to prove a true linchpin and the very epitomy of the companies ethos. Creator owned and creator driven books were to be given an icon. And that icon was the absurdly named Savage Dragon.

Shedding ideas like an enthusiastic 8 year old, completely unafraid of running out of original material, Larsen took readers on a roller coaster ride experience. Pneumatic vixens and wild mutant monsters crowded the streets of Savage Dragon’s home town Chicago, while Larsen was the man to pull back together the Sinister Six (a combination of all the worst enemies of Spider-man) in New York for Marvel. Artist, script writer, plot and character designer – Larsen could barely contain his ideas on the page. This was what Image had been formed for and Larsen was about to take it by storm.

Seeking greater control and profit over the work they created, Larsen and six other illustrators abandoned Marvel to form Image Comics, where Larsen finally gave his childhood creation life in the form of the fin-headed, green super-cop, The Savage Dragon. This time a massively-muscled green amnesiac who joins the Chicago Police Department after being found in a burning field with no memory of how he ended up there. After a series of self-published redesigns of the character, the stripped down version of the Dragon was given a three issue limited series in 1993, expanding to a full length ongoing series completely under the control of Larsen. Astonishingly, in self-publishing, Larsen has maintained a reasonably consistent monthly schedule (excluding a couple of occasional lapses) in comparison to the other Image titles. Larsen describes Dragon as the missing like between Marvel and Vertigo, aimed at older Marvel readers ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. And in this he has pitched it perfectly. With a much more adult view, the Savage Dragon bridges the gap neatly between the teen orientated Marvel and the devoutly adult Vertigo titles.

If in any doubt as to why Larsen belongs among the hall of Practitioners, here it is. One of the brave and the bold to leave the relative safety of Marvel behind in order to self publish, Larsen’s title, The Savage Dragon, is the only title in the original line-up (besides Spawn) to still continue to exist and the only one still created by its creator. Image was built on Larsen’s ideals and he has proven that he always intended to see his dream through – marking him out as perhaps the most diligent, determined and honest creator to have left Marvel in the ’90s. Add to that his unnatural talent, enthusiasm and sense of humour and you have a natural comics talent with no time for the limitations of modern books. Larsen will continue to do it his way. Exotic women, massive guns and superheroes with Chicken heads prevail and the day Larsen stops doing that, a little light on an era that harks back to the beginning of comics will go out. Until someone finds a copy of Savage Dragon….